Koert Debeuf Column

To Safeguard Democracy In Egypt, Postpone The Referendum. An Outsider’s Perspective. (Column)

FLI Morsi

Egypt President Morsi

Egypt is in total chaos. In a few days people will have to vote on the new constitution of the country. This is a moment of utmost importance. If Egypt votes in favour it will set the lines for all politics in the next ten years. Such an important decision should be made with at least some knowledge and in a calm atmosphere. Egypt’s situation today is the complete opposite.

Chaos started with the Constitutional Declaration of President Morsi on November 22, 2012. In this decree, he took all power in order to prevent the Supreme Constitutional Court to abort the constitutional process. This would be a logical step for the Court as it declared the People’s Assembly unconstitutional before. And it was this Assembly that selected the Constitutional Assembly. Morsi believed that rather than a legal point of view, the court was taking a political one, with a goal: obstructing the Islamist majority. True or not, Morsi went much too far than necessary for his purpose.

When the Islamist majority (the others had left) voted the constitution in a rush, everything pointed in the direction of an Islamist takeover of the country. Most worrying indeed, but the question is, is it illegitimate? I think everyone agrees that the power grab of Morsi was not legitimate. I am sure he thinks so himself. More importantly however is the question if the constitution is illegitimate? Frankly, I don’t see why it would be. The people elected the People’s Assembly. The one third of the candidates that should have been independent from any party, weren’t independent. However, not only the FJP failed to do that; all parties were complicit. So, it might be unconstitutional but is not undemocratic or illegitimate. (By the way, I never understood why nobody ever said before the elections to all parties that party people would be barred from running for these seats.) In any case, this free and fair elected assembly selected a Constitutional Assembly of 100 people. One can discuss whether this selection is fair, but it is certainly not undemocratic or illegitimate.

Why did so many representatives run out of the Constitutional Assembly? Writing a constitution is not the same as making a budget. The latter can easily be voted majority against opposition. That’s politics. But a constitution is different. Constitutions are essentially the protection of minorities, of weaker groups and people, of individual freedom as well. Constitutions are the protection of the minorities against whatever majority. The fact that several ‘minorities’ felt insufficiently heard, gives this constitution a flavour of fundamental unfairness. But that doesn’t make it illegitimate.

In short, President Morsi took power in an illegitimate way in order to protect a legitimate draft constitution. But that doesn’t mean that the constitution is a fair and fully democratic piece. Also from a legal point of view one might have some questions. How on earth, for example, can a constitution say that it is forbidden to insult a human being? Is saying to my neighbour that I don’t like his shirt unconstitutional?

But back to the chaos. The soap of the last days is of almost mythical proportions. From the opposition side as today it is totally unclear what its position is. They said yesterday that they are against all presidential decrees. But at the same time some parties are campaigning for a no in the referendum. It is still unclear if the opposition (or a part of it?) will boycott the referendum or not. Some say Morsi has to go, others that he has to change his decrees and change the constitution. The chaos from the president’s side however is much more confusing. The day after he gives his (much delayed) speech in which he says nothing is going to change, the Vice-President said something might change. Even more, VP Mekki said the President might delay the referendum, while Al-Awa said after the negotiations that a delay is impossible. The President said the constitution is not going to change, but at a bit later he says (through his spokesman) that if the opposition agrees on the articles it doesn’t like, he will put them in a law and bring it to the next parliament. One week before the referendum the President issues a law that increases taxes on a lot of things, but he cancels the law the same night at 2.30 am. The government wasn’t informed. And there is also the question of the organisation of the referendum. Some judges decided to boycott, others said they will overview. What is the army going to do? Who is going to count the votes? Who is going to supervise the counting of the votes?

This is the atmosphere in which the people of Egypt have to decide on the most important document of the next ten years, at least. One can disagree if the constitution or the process is democratic or not. But everyone cannot but agree that a referendum in the current chaos would be very undemocratic. Democracy is essentially a system to disagree in a civilized way. It also means giving people a chance to disagree. Organizing a referendum in one week time is denying the people the chance to discuss about the constitution and yes, also disagree.

So there are essentially two sides. Morsi and his Islamist forces exude confidence that this constitution is fair and representative of Egypt’s values. And they are confident of victory. Fine. Then they should have no problem with a delay. The other side feels the constitution is flawed and does not represent Egypt’s values. Fine again. Then they too should support only one constitutional decree that gives a thirty-day delay to properly make their case to the Egyptian voters. So, it becomes simple: hold the referendum in mid-January 2013. And let’s have a proper debate.

FLI Koert Debeuf PortretKoert Debeuf lives in Cairo, Egypt, where he represented the EU parliament’s Alde group for many years. Currently he is Project Coordinator “World Leaders on Transitions towards Democracy” at International IDEA. He is a former advisor of a Belgian prime minister. Reporting from post-revolutionary Egypt, his columns are a window on events in the Arab world. Koert Debeuf is also author of ‘Inside the Arab Revolution’.

For more columns of Koert Debeuf, click here.

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